DVD Review: Picket Fences - Season 1
Release Date: June 19, 2007
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
· Tom Skerritt
· Kathy Baker
· Holly Marie Combs
· Fyvush Finkel
· Lauren Holly
· Costas Mandylor
· IMDb: Picket Fences
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: June 19, 2007
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."
That's the general motto when it comes to television. A show can be defined by genre (drama, sit-com), by referencing its archetype ("Friends -- it's like Cheers mixed with a little thirtysomething), or sometimes as a star vehicle ("Fox is scheduling the new Kelsey Grammer show."). Rarely do you hear about the behind-the-scenes people, the way you do with a new Martin Scorsese or George Romero movie.
But there are always exceptions. For decades, producer Aaron Spelling was legendary for his entertaining and accessible dramas. Recently, director/writer Joss Whedon has gained a rabid following for his smart, funny creations such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mention a Spelling show or say that Whedon has a new project in the works, and most people will be able to have an image of what you're talking about. They're brands.
In the '90s, viewers embraced another brand: the David E. Kelley show. And it all started in 1992, with Picket Fences.
Of course, Picket Fences was not Kelley's first writing experience. He had already been a writer for Doogie Howser, M.D., and had written memorable episodes of L.A. Law (including the infamous episode when Rosalind Shays stepped into the elevator shaft). But Picket Fences was the first chance Kelley had to helm a project.
As his main characters, he created Sheriff Jimmy Brock (Tom Skerritt) and his wife Dr. Jill Brock (Kathy Baker). By choosing a law enforcement officer and a medical professionals as main characters, he could draw on both the law and medicine for storylines, as he had in his previous writing. He plunked them down in the fictional small town of Rome, Wisconsin, to emphasize how issues can affect a community, and gave them three children, to add in the tensions of raising a family.
And then he gave things the Kelley twist. The tin man turning up dead at the town's production of "The Wizard of Oz." A nun being arrested for euthanasia, identified in part from her propensity to sing patients Roberta Flack songs. A "serial bather" terrorizing the neighborhood.
Season One of Picket Fences shows Kelley's deft touch with characterizations. The Brock family functioned as a family. Deputy Sheriffs Maxine Stewart (Lauren Holly) and Kenny Lacos (Costas Mandylor) possessed a great working chemistry with each other and with their position as officers. Attorney Douglas Wambaugh (Fyvush Finkel) lived up to his own catch phrase: "I'm a character."
Season One also provided examples of a technique Kelley would go on to use to great effect: juxtaposition. Sometimes the juxtaposition would be of storylines, as in the episode "Nuclear Meltdowns." There, a serious storyline involving accusations of incest, a comic storyline involving investigation of a cult, and a romantic storyline about Kenny's dating life all converged to produce an "a-ha" moment for the viewer during one courtroom scene.
At other times, the juxtaposition would be of dialogue, as different conversations were intercut with each other to poetic effect. Take, for instance, the episode "The Contenders." Jill Brock decided to run for mayor, and Kenny Lacos arranged for a charity fight with a professional boxer who was in custody. Jill discussed her choice with daughter Kimberly (Holly Marie Combs of Charmed fame), and Kenny with Max.
Max: Kenny, are you sure you want to do this?
Jill: At this point I don't really have a choice. I'm in it. I don't know if I can win.
Kenny: But I got a shot. And sometimes it's enough just to take your shot.
Kimberly: I don't know. The whole thing scares me a little. I mean, you and Dad are already fighting. What if you win?
Kenny: Whether I win or not isn't important. Just climbing in the ring with a champion, and feeling for one second that I belong there.
Jill: Maybe it's because I'm a woman, or maybe it's because this town is still such an old boy's network. I don't know.
Kenny: I think one of the reasons I gave up boxing is the fact that I never even allowed myself to think I could be great.
Jill: I mean, it wasn't an option I considered, you know. I mean, a doctor, sure! But a leader of the community? Oh.
Kenny: It'll help the guy, Max. The money will go to get him some good lawyers. It'll give him a chance. The kids in this town will benefit. A lot of people will get help. This will be good for the town.
Jill: I wouldn't be running if I didn't believe that. But ... I can't deny there is a little something in it for me too.
In its first season, Picket Fences did not have good ratings, but it did have critical success, winning Emmys for Best Drama Series, Best Leading Actor (Tom Skerritt) and Best Leading Actress (Kathy Baker). By its second season, it started adding viewers to its awards, and Kelley became even more inventive in the form and substance of his shows.
Then came Season Three. Kelley introduced an extended storyline on school integration -- and the Brocks as well as most of Rome, Wisconsin were on the "wrong" side of the issue. While ordinarily Kelley could present varying sides of an issue, in this case the anti-integration side didn't have his usual emotional resonance. Perhaps it was an attempt, after building up this quirky town, to then deconstruct it. If so, it was an ambitious effort that ultimately failed. There were still fine moments to the show, often provided by Ray Walston as Judge Henry Bone, a role for which he won Emmys in 1995 and 1996, and Don Cheadle, who was introduced in Season Two as D.A. John Littleton, but there were often many missteps. Thought-provoking too often became didactic, and quirky too often became bizarre. Picket Fences went on for one more season, this time without Kelley as the writer, and that was the final blow for the show. After four seasons, Picket Fences was done.
Kelley, however, was very much alive. In 1994, he had started a new drama, Chicago Hope. As with Picket Fences, it had a couple of seasons of genius, with interesting characters and intriguing, timely storylines, and then seemed to lose its way -- particularly when other writers tried to pick up the Kelley creation.
In 1997, Kelley pushed the limits of his quirky style with the show Ally McBeal, a show whose titular character was an attorney who also worried endlessly about her dating life, to the point of having a dancing baby mysteriously show up to symbolize her ticking biological clock. The show's visual style -- showcasing the character's thoughts in an almost cartoonish manner -- made Ally McBeal a love-it-or-hate-it creation, and one that guaranteed Kelley's notoriety.
It did not guarantee his success, however. Several of his post-McBeal shows have flopped, such as Girls Club (7 episodes in 2002), The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire (3 episodes in 2003), and most recently The Wedding Bells (6 episodes in 2007). Boston Public, set in a public school, lasted for four seasons, but did not enjoy the same success or buzz as earlier Kelley creations.
And yet you can't count Kelley out. In 1997, concurrent with Ally McBeal, Kelley started The Practice, which was sort of an anti-Ally McBeal. It was a gritty, realistic legal drama about a small Boston law firm doing criminal defense for small-time clients. Season One of The Practice came out on DVD earlier this month, and the episodes stand up wonderfully today. The characters are unique and the plots are well crafted. Then, as with Picket Fences and Chicago Hope, the crafting that made the first seasons great went by the wayside.
Despite its slide, The Practice continued for 8 seasons, Kelley's longest running series. Then, in Season 8, Kelley threw a Hail Mary pass and brought James Spader on board as attorney Alan Shore. This, in turn, led to the spin-off Boston Legal, which is entering its fourth season and garnering critical praise for its acting (Spader and William Shatner as Denny Crane both won Emmys in 2005) and the controversial issues it addresses. It even has some of the Kelley boundary pushing, as characters metaphorically tap on the fourth wall separating TV from viewers.
After more than a decade of Kelley's work, it's interesting to look back on his first creation. While at the time, Picket Fences was considered a remarkably quirky show, in comparison to his later work the first season is notable for its restraint. For example, an episode where Maxine considers adopting a baby doesn't feature slapstick humor about her lack of maternal instincts, or angst about how she's not up to being a mother. There's no need for that. At this point, we'd had over 20 episodes of getting to know Maxine, how dedicated she is to her profession, how important it is to her to be one of the boys. What we needed to see was Maxine's awakened maternal side. Which is what Kelley -- and Lauren Holly -- show us, simply, beautifully and effectively.
In over a decade, Kelley's taken us on a long journey. With this DVD set, he's taking us back home.
Bonus Features: Sadly, the only bonus feature on this DVD set is a 14-minute featurette called "All Roads Lead to Rome." It's a general, feel-good look back at the show by Kelley, producers, and the main cast members. There's not much depth -- most of the discussion is about how great everyone was to work with. I was very disappointed that there were no episode commentaries.
|Episodes and Bonus Features of Season One
Pilot (Special Extended Episode)
The Green Bay Chopper
Mr. Dreeb Comes to Town
The Autumn of Rome
Frank, the Potato Man
Bad Moons Rising
The Body Politic
Be My Valentine
Rights of Passage
Sugar & Spice
The Lullaby League
Featurette: All Roads Lead to Rome